Archive for December, 2011

December 25

Christmas Presence

By Marsh Chapel

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Luke 2: 1-20

Christmas is a time for stories because we begin again, at this time, to make the saving connection between our one story and the eternal story of Jesus Christ, our Christmas Presence.  You spell that presence.

When we were little, Jan and I lived out in the west, together under the Big Sky, though we did not know each other, she near Denver and I in Las Vegas, we were not to hold hands for another 15 Christmas Eves, nor to become engaged for another 20, nor for another 25 to construct a child’s play kitchen at 2am, opening the box marked, a frightful warning, “some assembly required”.  She was a toddler while her dad read Paul Tillich for a PhD dissertation in Denver, at the Illiff School of Theology.  He commuted from school to church on the train, reading a book with each eye as you do in graduate school. He went there, after a master’s degree in electrical engineering, on the strength of a Life magazine article titled, “They’re training a new kind of preacher in Denver.”  At the same time, I was a toddler in the desert sands of Las Vegas while my dad was a chaplain at the Nellis Air Force Base.  He went there, after undergraduate pre-medical study and divinity school in Boston.  They were leaders.  One the captain of the football team, the other the President of the senior class.  They came of age when leaders who wanted to make a difference headed away from engineering and medicine, and toward the ministry. All this was 55 years ago:  the cold war, Joe McCarthy, Elvis, the Mickey Mouse Club, Patti Page, and the hoola hoop.  And Tillich.

Paul Tillich is probably the last and only name of a modern theologian that more than 10% of contestants on a game show in our nation could recognize.  Maybe 5%.  His was one of the last great theological attempts, in simple yet systematic language, to connect the story of life with the story of Christ, and to do so in a way that would work, as Luke says, “for all the people”.   I smiled last week when I read again his forward to the 1957 volume:  “I hope to receive much valuable criticism of the substance of my thought, as I did with the first volume…But I cannot accept criticism as valuable which merely insinuates that I have surrendered the substance of the Christian message because I have used a terminology which consciously deviates from the biblical or ecclesiastical language.  Without such deviation, I would not have deemed it worthwhile to develop a theological system for our period.”

As Jan, at age 3, fingered the bulbs and lights of a tree in the parsonage of Onega, Kansas, her dad read Tillich, on the train home from Denver.    He read, I know he must have, how Tillich translated the old words about faith to words more current and true.  They are still true, and hearing them this morning can mean lasting health, real salvation.  Said he, we receive the Christmas Presence in three modes.  By participation.  By acceptance.  By transformation.

First, the story of Christ grasps and embraces your story by causing you to participate in his.  This is the whole substance of Christmas, the reason for the season, and the reason you are here this morning, or listening on the radio this morning—and by the way, a special, personal Merry Christmas greeting to our faithful radio congregation today.  You are participating.  It is the reason the musician frets over carols, the ushers welcome you, the preacher offers a sermon, and in the beauty, the silence, the majesty of this one beautiful day within the great Day of God, you participate.  Christ has surrounded your hurt and desire, with his healing and love.

Second, the story of Christ grasps and embraces your story, somewhere along the tough road of life, by whispering to you:  “you are accepted.”  If only you will accept the fact that deep in the heart of the universe, call it the Ground of all Being if you will, there is a happy acceptance of just who you are, the real you, the authentic only you, your one story.  God loves you.  God accepts you.   You have things you regret. Welcome to the human race.  God accepts all that.  You are not perfect.  Welcome to the human race.  God accepts that too.  You are prone to error and certain to die.  Welcome to the human race.  God accepts your error and mortality.  Because: God accepts you.  Someday you are going to feel, believe, trust, know, understand and ACCEPT your acceptance by God.  May it be this Christmas morning 2011.  You are in the region, first trodden by shepherds and lowly folk, near Bethlehem of Judea, when the news broke:  God accepts, God loves.

Today, we might say, you are connected.  I ordered a computer by phone one fall. Mistake one. “Whatever else, please make sure the machine has a modem in it.”  Of course, yes, it arrived–without the modem.  We spent fumbling days installing the wrong, then the right little piece, to connect.  We were connected, but we had to connect with our connection, to see what condition our condition was in.  You are connected, so connect with your connection.

Third, the story of Christ grasps and embraces your story, over time, by transforming your life from one of self-centered striving, to one of centered selfhood, that frees others and loves others and gives to others.  From self centered to centered self. You will be surprised how steadily this transformation develops, which has occurred in potential by virtue of your simple participation this morning, and whose power is felt in your own acceptance, and your accepting your acceptance, and may that be this Christmas morning, too.

There is something new, loose in the universe, a Christmas Presence Who saves us by causing us to participate, by freeing us to accept, by changing us into loving people.

And maybe, after he assembled the tricycle at Christmas in the mid-50’s, Jan’s dad made a sermon note:  joy of participation!  Joy of acceptance!  Joy of transformation!  Peace, good will to all.

That same Christmas, a few hundred miles to the southwest, the midnight communion service on the Air Force base in Las Vegas was ending early on Christmas Day.  After the last candles were dosed, a humbler, perhaps truer, quiet ritual of Christmas Presence began.  It was the determined habit of the provost marshal on that base to spend Christmas eve and the wee hours of Christmas morning visiting those lonely airmen who walked the perimeter guard, around Nellis Air Force base.  This particular night was a crisp, starlit Christmas eve, but very cold out in the desert.   Robert Redford’s Desert Bloom beautifully depicts the location.  The provost marshal asked the chaplain to go along.  They took with them in the VW van canisters of coffee and cocoa and cookies baked by the major’s wife.  Interestingly, someone left two such canisters and four tubs of casserole in the chapel yesterday, an anonymous gift from an anonymous giver to an anonymous recipient. Through the night they drove, all around that base, a site then for nuclear testing during those early cold war years.  They were still at it, when dawn came on Christmas Day, as it has this morning.

They visited 18 posts.  At each the routine was the same.  The major offered the refreshments to the men (only men then) and then shouldered the man’s weapon and walked off into the desert to take the man’s turn at walking the half mile along the perimeter.  The provost marshal walked each man’s post, while the chaplain talked to the airmen.

You know, the old English root of the word “believe” is “to be near to.”

I had heard this story many times growing up, but I had forgotten it until a few summers, when my Dad and I were talking about the North Star, a sign of promise, and our experience with the night sky.

That night was a beautiful night.  The stars beckoned from horizon to horizon.  And cold!  You forget how cold it gets out on the desert after the sun goes down.  Finally the base marshal and the chaplain, my Dad, came to the flight line.  Well past midnight, they drove on by acres of airplanes worth millions of dollars.  Jets, prop planes, all.

Along the fence, guarding these millions of dollars worth of government machinery, there stood a 19 year old airman second class.  The major repeated the procedure—offering refreshment, shouldering the weapon, and walking off into the cold desert, leaving the chaplain alone with the young man.

It did not take long for the chaplain to discover that this particular 19 year old was not going to be easy to talk to. The chaplain tried everything—a joke, a question, a comment, a verse of scripture, everything he could think of to draw him out.  Nothing worked.  Probably the chaplain in a First Lieutenant’s uniform, and being a little older, was intimidating to the boy.  So, they just stood there.  In the silence.  In the cold.  In the silent still cold.  The chaplain shivered, the airman second class drank his cocoa, and there was black, dark quiet.  They gazed at that remarkable sky, as the dawn was coming up, and shivered and sipped….

Until, at last, the boy began to talk.  First a little information.  Then a little more about his family.  They some of his dreams for the future.  Then a word about his mom and his dad and his younger brother and his baby sister.  And there was moment of communion, I and Thou.  A hand on the shoulder, a word of prayer, a moment of participation and a little acceptance, and the beginnings of transformation, out in the desert.

What a blessing that lovely starry sky, the warm beverage, the cookies, the two older men and airman second class!

Now, 55 years later, I know that what Jan’s dad read in Denver is the gospel truth.  I have seen it with my own eyes.  The Christmas Presence changes people beginning with participation, continuing into acceptance, and completing us by transforming us.  Now 55 years later, I know the meaning of that Nevada story, and I know its truth.  The Christmas Presence heals us, beginning with participation, continuing into acceptance, and completing us in transformation.

I just have to ask you, here in the joy of Christmas morning:  can you accept your own acceptance?  Can you connect with your connection?

Mild he lays his glory by

Born that we no more may die

Born to raise us from the earth

Born to give us second birth

Hark the Herald Angels Sing

Glory to the New born King

-The Reverend Dr. Robert Allan Hill,
Dean of Marsh Chapel

December 18

Lessons and Carols

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full Lessons and Carols service.


The 38th annual Boston University community Lessons & Carols liturgy is modeled on the famous service from King’s College, Cambridge and does not include a sermon.

~The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean

December 11

Advent Carol

By Marsh Chapel

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Luke 1: 26-38

People imagine proposals and weddings in this season.  Often the images are of cities, bright lights, jewelry, red dresses, handsome ties and mink coats.

But Samuel tells of a shepherd king, raised in the country, taken from the pasture.  Mary sings of low estate,  and filling the hungry with good things, she herself being unexpectedly with child.  Luke recalls a north country, Galilee, small town Nazareth exurban story.  Hm.  Country.  Unexpected birth.  North of the city.  Story.  Hm…It reminds me…

In the early 1980’s we were stationed (appointed) an hour and a half  west of Montreal: in the country, up north.  We lived in a large, ungainly, and drafty country parsonage.  You knew it was a parsonage because on the front of the house there was a sign, to the left of the porch door, which read:  Methodist Parsonage.   Just so you know.  Whether the sign was meant to apologize for the down at the heal condition of the house, or was meant as a point of clarification about ownership, or was, as it certainly proved to be, meant as a guide for hoboes in need of sandwiches, as they drifted through that little town, know one ever said.  But it was more than adequate, more than reasonably adequate for two young parents, and two little children, and one child on the way.   It was our second parsonage.

Our first parsonage in Ithaca was once the home of Pearl Buck.  Our third in Syracuse was a street from the homes of Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolfe.  Our fourth home was down the street from the Rochester grave of Frederick Douglass, and not far from that of Elizabeth Cady Stanton.  Now we live near the offices of Robert Pinsky and Rosanna Warren.  But this the second parsonage was in the town immortalized by Laura Engels Wilder, in her book Farmer Boy, the birthplace and home of her husband, Almonzo Wilder, just 6 miles from the Canadian border.  Words have fed us and feed us still.  As my friend said, of his own liberation, ‘words were my way out.’ We have no excuses not to scour the earth, the heavens, time and place for words fitly spoken, like apples, apples, apples in the sun.

The parsonage was big enough, with two living rooms and an ample dining room, to accommodate some 75 people at one time.  We had learned this, and this number, because on the previous Maundy Thursday, the heat in the church had failed, at 10 below zero.  So the service of Holy Communion that evening was convened in the parsonage, with hymns played on the baby grand piano, and people scattered from couch to kitchen to pantry to stairs to window sill.  One elderly gentleman sat with the minister’s wife accompanist, right on the piano bench. I think he felt honored. Most later agreed that it was not only the coziest but easily the most memorable communion service they could recall.

Sometime well after the snow had begun to cover the farms and valleys of Burke NY, sometime after November 1, that is, the minister had a phone call from a neighboring farmer.  The man asked whether the preacher would conduct a wedding for a non-member.  Certainly he would and had and the farmer knew this as well as the preacher so the question in the air or over the phone line was the unspoken question what are we talking about?

Well, North Franklin County is not a place of endless talk.  There is in fact little said, week by week, and month by month, in the north country.  Most would agree there that this is the way things should be, allowing as how most things said don’t need saying at all, and those that do need saying need better saying than they mostly get.  I personally knew a beautiful young couple, prosperous potato farmers with two children, for three years and never once heard the husband say a single word.  The preacher is also allowed and expected to talk, there being I guess some uncertainty about how to think about the clergy.  But even so, the briefer the better, if you please, pastor.  Wordless wisdom up north compared favorably with the loquacious knowledge we had known in Ithaca, in the days of Carl Sagan and Hans Bethe.  Mile by mile, going north, surprisingly, wisdom if not knowledge increased, along with kindness.

In any event, after a long while of hemming and hawing and not saying, the minister wrangled out of the farmer that the farmer’s hired man wanted to get married.  Actually he needed to get married.  He wanted to get married, but he also was in a situation where he needed to get married, too.  This took the not usually talkative farmer a long while to explain because he did not directly explain what he was trying to explain.  Phrases like ‘unexpected circumstance’ and ‘things moving pretty fast’ and ‘sometimes these things happen’ and ‘they are really good young folks’ were clearly spoken but their actually footing on planet earth was hard, or not possible, to ascertain.  Finally the preacher said simply, ‘send them up, I am glad to talk to them’.  This led to some meetings in the church office, on days when the oil furnace was working, and some lumbering, awkward conversation about marriage, and some planning for a service to solemnize their marriage.

The couple lived on the farm where the husband worked.  They lived in a single wide trailer, which is a trailer exactly half as big as a double wide trailer.  Hay bales stuffed around the edges and thankfully covered with much snow for half the year mostly kept the pipes from freezing.  Housing was provided for the hired man, just like for the minister, but the trailer was a whole lot smaller and a whole lot more dangerous than the parsonage (at least in most physical ways).  Milking at 4am and 4pm, every day, and work, all day, in between, every day.  You could rent the movie Frozen River and then know quite a lot about this neck of the woods.

After some talk with his wife that night, and receiving the benefit of her genuine generosity and creative kindness, the minister suggested that the couple be married on Christmas Eve day, at noon, in the parsonage.  It would be a small wedding, and, as his wife thoughtfully suggested, they could put the children down for nap, early, and then use the piano, have some refreshments, and make something happy and pretty in and of the moment.

The last day of Advent, December 24, came, with a gust of bitter wind, a snow shower, and then a bleak barely visible sun at midday.  A little late, the bride and groom appeared.  But their friends, who would sign for them (the Empire State being one which requires witnesses other than the clergy, a wise requirement) had somehow not appeared.  The three year old daughter could be heard crawling and listening from the top of the stairs.  The wind blew and the snow fell.  Finally, to make the matter potentially legal, a neighbor lady was invited to come and join the service.  She and the minister’s wife later signed the license.  The minister performed the ceremony.  A carol was sung, that day in late Advent.  The three year old would appear, and disappear, as the service progressed, and appeared for good when the cookies were served.  Other than the words of the wedding themselves, I do not recall that anything else was said.  I refer you to the remarks made some moments ago about the paucity of speech along the great frozen St Lawrence river.  But no words really were needed.  The farm wife, young and pregnant, was simply dressed in a light dress.  Her smile, her gleaming eyes, her red cheeks and smile, her evident enjoyment of the home and homely setting were a full epic poem of happy gratitude.  And her husband, scrubbed and crammed head long into a tight black suit and wayward tie, was as dignified, reverent, true and terrified as any groom at any time in the 900 or so weddings the minister has thus far done.  Do you?  I do.  The three year old’s face looked down from the stairs.  Do you?  I do.  The piano played softly, a little meditation, Love Came Down at Christmas.

One loving neighbor, one jubilant three year old, one fairly green preacher, and one creatively generous wife, were present to attest to a wedding, a union of hearts and souls, on a cold winter day, in a forgotten patch of rough land, now some thirty years ago.  I can see that piano, taste the cookies, hear the carols, feel the hands, sense the candles as if it were an hour ago, and in some ways it was, just an hour ago.

There are a lot of fine and treasured forms of theological learning which one can and must acquire in the six brief semesters of divinity school.  Moses and Jesus, Paul and John, Augustine and Pelagius, Luther and Erasmus, Wesley and Calvin, Barth and Tillich, Amoun of Nitria, the documentary hypothesis, the second aorist, filioque and the teleological suspension of the ethical.  All of these and all that stands in between one can and must receive, while there is the time and freedom to meet and know them.  You are digging a dip well from which you will need pure water to drink, as you preach, and you try to slake the thirst of the human soul.

The practice of ministry, the privilege of the practice of ministry, however, is learned in the actual doing of ministry, on the piano bench, over cookies, in the smaller living room, at $9,000 a year, in a drafty old manse, with a toddler spying, and a tiny but ever so majestic event—declaration of love, til death us do part.  There is a temptation, when one is in school, to think reality begins and ends with the library or the internet or the reputation of a beloved teacher.  But it is a big world out there, waiting for you, murky, endlessly fascinating, strange full of need and longing for love, longing for an experience of God.

When the boots were donned, and the gloves and coats put on, the bride, in the hour of her wedding, kissed the child and hugged the pianist.  To the minister she gave her hand, and with that Methodist handshake gave the gift of meaning, lasting meaning, in the work and struggle of ministry, wherein one works and struggles to find and keep the grace to put oneself at the disposal of others.  On the last day of Advent, on a bitter winter afternoon, at least one preacher was given the privilege of seeing the privilege of life in ministry.  And something more:  in the handshake, a hint of the hidden God, and the gospel of divine love, creating us, forgiving us, guiding us.  It was a sort of Advent Carol.  An Advent Carol, lingering like lasting beauty always does, in the eternity of memory.  What a privilege to live and be in ministry.  There is nothing like it, not in all creation.  What a privilege.

The door closed, and the minister and his wife smiled and hugged each other, and sent the daughter back up to nap.

Advent comes around once a year to force an upon us an attitude adjustment.  From Luke to Francis to El Greco to Wesley to Boston University in Chelsea and in our Medical Center, we are being reminded of something, our attitude is receiving an adjustment.  Faithful witnesses from Nazareth to Roxbury, remind us so. Jesus came out in the country, in birth, up north, among the poor, as a child.

Maybe we can remember that, in our time.

When we learn on a televised 60 minutes news program of children in central Florida, whose homes, whose mangers, whose night repose are in automobiles, parked outside a Walmart where a kind manager lets them be, and they wash up for school at McDonalds, maybe we will remember…

When we recall a little boy left with a pillow and a window ajar in an upstate NY casino parking lot, while mom went to play the slots, maybe we will remember…

When the costs of war, aerial bombardment, are reported in round numbers, in collateral damage, including unnamed children, maybe we will remember…

When we count 20% of the poor in this country as children, maybe we will remember…

When we see flickering on the evening news a fire in a trailer, or a tenement, or a third floor walk up, and think of three year olds there, maybe we will remember…

When we strike again the balance of responsibility and compassion, liberty and justice, freedom and grace, and cast our verbal, financial, and civic ballots, maybe we will remember…

When the preachers says, repeatedly, ‘let those who have much not have too much, and those who have little not have too little, maybe we will remember, remember, remember, the manner of his Advent:  outside, countryside, inside, manger side, northside, far side—a poor unexpected baby child.

Maybe it is too much for some to agree that all should have raiment, roof, bedding, safety, a doctor when sick, a teacher when learning, a sacred space that means a safe place.  Maybe you would not agree that ALL might so live.  But could we not at least grant all this to children?  To those 14 and under?  To those who have not had a chance to miss and mistake there chance just yet?

As my parents used to say, ‘Bob, somebody let you grow up.’  They didn’t sound like they meant that as a compliment.

Meanwhile, thirty years ago, in a modest parsonage living room…

A knock came again at the door.  There stood the groom, gloves off.  He had something he had forgotten.  He had something he wanted to give.  Not to say, but to do.  Not to speak, but to act.  Not to describe, but to give.  I refer you to the demography of verbal silence along the frozen St Lawrence offered some moments ago.  He held out his hand, with bills rumpled and folded there in.  He looked down, and then quickly up at the pastor.  He gave me four dollars.  He was truly proud to give it.  And I was truly proud to receive it.  I only wish I had had the sense to put the bills away as a physical reminder of the day.

No, as a reminder the action required of love, the doing of good.  Do you love Jesus?  Then you will do something for him.

At every turn, as we come to Christmas, we are reminded that faith is born in trouble, like that little bit of faithfulness was born on the last day of Advent so far away and so many years ago.  We are reminded of the lowly entrance our Lord makes into life.  That night, at age three, a little girl sang in church, for the first but not the last time, a carol from the countryside, the unexpected side, the northside, whose author is, so fittingly, unknown:

Away in a manger no crib for a bed
The little Lord Jesus lay down his sweet head
The stars in the bright sky Looked down where he lay
The little Lord Jesus Asleep on the hay

Be near me Lord Jesus I ask thee to stay
Close by me forever  And love me I pray
Bless all the dear children in thy tender care
And fit us for heaven to live with thee there.

~The Reverend Dr. Robert Allan Hill,
Dean of Marsh Chapel

December 4

Grace Upon Grace

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the entire service.
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John 1: 6-8, 19-28

Park Ridge

In 2005 we went to visit our oldest child and husband in their first house.   They lived in a nice cottage like home, in the heart of Park Ridge Illinois.  The church they served owned the home, which had a guest room on the second floor.

Park Ridge straddles the train line which brings people out from Chicago, following days of labor and study and loss and gain.   Theirs was the main church in town, the Community church, whose Senior Minister, Rev Dr Brett McCleneghan, is currently a member of the Marsh Chapel and Religious Life Advisory Board.  His daughter, Bromily, now a minister herself, is a BU alumna, who worshipped in these pews during her student years.  The town is a gem, a rich blend of history and activity, of urban and suburban, of prayer and work.  Our first grandchild was born there, in a hospital on Dempster Street, named for the same John Dempster who planted the seed in 1839 that became Boston University.  He planted another that became Northwestern University.

From the first, those visits, and the carrying of the suitcase up to the guest room, were delicious with grace.  To lie down and rest, to sleep, now under the roof of those who have for so long been the sole reason for your own roof, brings a soulful lightness of being.  You are in the embrace of the next generation, the future.  As John concludes: Truly, truly I say to you, when you were young you girded yourself and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go (John 21:18). The torch is about to be passed to a new generation, and the weightlessness such a premonition brings is the peace of God, passing understanding.  It is a grace to sing, ‘O won’t come with me to my father’s house?’  It is grace upon grace to whisper, ‘O wont you come with me to my daughter’s house…where there is peace, peace, peace.’

On a walk one day in Park Ridge we came upon the Methodist church, a few blocks away, smaller, simpler, leaner.  Many of our churches seem to have been built one block away from success.  I pictured that church a month ago, on November 2, 2011.   I was thinking of their MYF, and of a famous alumna of the Park Ridge UMC MYF.   The day’s paper (NYT, 11/2/11, R McFadden) carried an obituary of a woman named Dorothy Rodham.  At middle age in the 1940’s, Dorothy joined that church.  They found a welcome, a peace, a place to grow in faith—a church family to love, a church home to enjoy.  They found there a grace to replace the grace that had brought them, a second generation kind of peace, after an earlier generation of grace under pressure.  Moses needed one kind of grace.  Joshua needed another.

Born in 1919, Dorothy  Howell had a life that the paper called Dickensyian.  Abandoned by divorced, dysfunctional parents.   Sent off alone by train to California to be raised by unwelcoming grandparents.  Her grandmother was strict woman who wore black dresses, and confined her to her room for a year, as punishment for Halloween trick or treating. Working by age 14 for $3 a week as a nanny.   She joined the scholarship club and Spanish club. Then back to Chicago on the bungled, mistaken assumption that her parents wanted her back.   Her mother in Chicago promised Dorothy a college education if she came home. ‘I had hoped so hard that my mother would love me that I had to take the chance and find out. ‘She put herself through high school and became a secretary.  Enough rain had fallen in Dorothy’s life to fill a dozen others, before she even married.  She married Mr Rodham, and they moved to Park Ridge.

They entered a second kind of grace.  Sometimes the grace of one era, epoch or season, gives way to another sort of grace, a grace upon grace.

The Rodhams raised their three children in Park Ridge, in eyeshot of where that second generation grace of slumber in the arms of the daughter Morpheus would so enchant me some years later.  They worshipped, served, enjoyed fellowship, and learned in the Methodist church, there.  Her two sons and her daughter survive her, with four grandchildren.  I think she knew the feeling of sleeping soundly under your grown children’s sturdy roof.

Now here is the gospel.  What she learned from the wounds of California, the grace to survive in a harsh setting, she taught as healing in Chicago.  One grace, the grace of endurance became another grace, the grace of persistence.  She taught her kids to defend themselves in the Park Ridge streets and ballfields.  She taught them to work, to sacrifice, to study, to prepare, to persist.

Later, her daughter decided to come to Boston for college.  This is where the country comes to study.   When the daughter struggled in the first fall term, and wanted to come home from Wellesley, Dorothy said no:  ‘You can’t quit.  You’ve got to see through what you have started’.

You may have wondered how Hillary Rodham Clinton found the grace to endure all that she publicly has endured over the last 30 years.  Reading her mother Dorothy’s obituary told me:  one grace gave birth to another.

Weeping may tarry for the night of one generation, and still joy will come with the morning of the next.  It makes you want to stretch out and take a nice long nap, under the sturdy roof of your daughter’s house.

Faith, when you ask people to describe its origins, comes from trouble.

Grace changes, morphs, and becomes a second grace.

Grace instead of Grace

Our gospel lesson is the John version of the Mark lesson last week about the Baptist.  Our lectionary gives only occasional place to John, the three year cycle highlighting Matthew, Mark and Luke.  Bits of John are sprinkled about, as here in Advent.  Further, not all of John 1 is read continuously, here, just the Baptist story, so you miss a crucial verse, 16, which we have added under the sermon title, ‘grace upon grace’.  This verse is a central one for the whole of the chapter.  To make matters more calamitously tangled, the translation of this verse, especially of its key preposition, ‘upon’, is fiercely contested.  Does this read, ‘grace added to grace’ or ‘grace instead of grace’ or ‘grace replacing grace’ or ‘grace upon grace’?  What is upon?  Added to or higher than?

A critical moderate would say the former, a moderate critic the latter.  I believe it is the latter.  That is, there is startling invitation here, for you, to sense the movement of movement, the change of change, the grace of grace.  Grace is not always the same.  It looks like one thing in California, and another in Chicago, one thing when you need to hang on for dear life and another when you are storing up the chestnuts of nourishment for the next generation’s coming winter of discontent.

Grace moves.  So should we.

We are not always nimble enough to do so.  We do not easily pivot, from grace to grace.  We do not always rightly judge what time it is.  We do not awake to the gift of grace upon grace, always and easily in good time.


We are on the journey of faith, in the season of Advent.  We are called to plan, to prepare, to practice patience, to know penitence.

To see grace moving, moving before us, grace beyond grace, we shall need every resource to our disposal.  Look hard at the daily, weekly points where you open yourself to grace.  Do you worship, come Sunday?  Do you listen in the morning and walk in the evening?  Do you read something ancient, and true, as life comes toward you?  Is there a smile on your lips and a song in your heart?  Are you giving your soul a chance to breath?

I see signs among us that this is so.

This week moments of prayer arose at hospital bedsides.  This week the bread of salvation and the cup of mercy were shared, outside and inside, at noon and at dusk.  This week the balm of personal conversation, pastoral conversation, was offered, in the thick of daily difficulties.  We shall return this morning, and soon, to the table of grace.

Midweek, this week, we celebrated the faithfulness of a fine man who saw his children grow and marry, who saw a grandchild born.  A most gracious, welcoming man, for whom the chance to meet and greet and listen and speak, to embrace and enjoy were the heart of life.  In eulogy, his son remembered going with Dad to Fenway Park, to see the game, on summer evenings.  He would be dropped at the office, and then would have to wait, cap on head and glove on hand, wait with anxious impatience, as his Dad answered the last phone calls, talked with every office worker, moved slowly out to the car, pausing for luxurious conversation with those above him, below him, beside him, all, in equal measure.  The boy stifled the desire to tug his Dad faster, but as a young man, remembering, he honored the welcoming gift of the his father’s life.  “He was such a welcoming man”

Later this week, in worship and memorial, we reckoned with another life, clergy woman similarly taken after six short decades.  With many of you she exemplified gladness and conscience and presence:  a deep gladness in the engagements of love and care, a hard and true sense of conscience as a built in radar which calls us to heel and to heal, a profound sense of presence, reflecting that Presence in whose Presence there is fullness of joy.  Like all clergy she was a wounded healer, as her teacher Henry Nouwen, reminded an earlier generation.  One’s capacity to help depends one’s candor about personal hurt.  She had something to say because she had been somewhere and seen something herself.  She could see in the dark and bring light to the dim places, because she had been acquainted herself with the dark.

I have been one acquainted with the night
I have walked out in rain and back in rain
I have out walked the furthest city light

I looked down the saddest city lane
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain

I have been one acquainted with the night
(Robert Frost)

This afternoon we shall gather again, to reach for and remember ‘grace for grace’.  We will sing, pray and listen, in particular, as those who know this loss and lack, even in the seasons of joy and light.  We will sing an unfamiliar, hauntingly beautiful carol.  The poem sings of grace which moves, grace with morphs,  grace which meets the different moments of history and life.

God of the Ages, by whose hand
Through years long past our lives were led
Give us new courage now to stand
New faith to find the paths ahead

Thou art the thought beyond all thought
The gift beyond our utmost prayer
No farthest reach where thou art not
No height but we may find thee there

Forgive our wavering trust in thee
Our wild alarms, our trembling fears
In thy strong hand eternally
Rests the unfolding of the years

Though there be dark uncharted space
With worlds on worlds beyond our sight
Still may we trust they love and grace
And wait thy word:  Let there be light.

(Elisabeth Burrowes)

~The Reverend Dr. Robert Allan Hill,
Dean of Marsh Chapel